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Holding translators accountable

"Holding translators accountable" Continued...

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

The Irvines also began hearing that Wycliffe translators were altering Scripture's filial language in Muslim contexts. David kept working on visas, and Deana worked on packing. But, Deana told me, "there was starting to be this tension because we were both having questions and we didn't want to talk about it because you don't want to be the one that doesn't want to do it." The Irvines began reading discussions on an internal SIL message board on the topic. (Wycliffe recruits members then seconds them to SIL to do translation.)

As the Irvines struggled, David began sending questions to people in Wycliffe about the issue. "I wasn't getting specific answers. I was just being given more things to read that were supportive of this contextualization idea," he said. In April, three weeks before the Irvines planned to move overseas, they told Wycliffe that they were pulling out. Deana had listened to a sermon on false biblical teaching: "I said, 'I have enough to answer for without that.'"

The Irvines aren't translation experts. Criticism of alternate renderings of "Son of God" is arising from people who aren't in the field or don't understand the cultural and linguistic issues, said one Bible translator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his ongoing work in the Middle East. "It's not as simple as 'Just put the word for son,'" he said. "A lot of the people who object to this are thinking about this only in English. ... They hear a rumor that Wycliffe is changing the Bible and they say, 'Oh no! Let's stop them!'"

But translators are divided on the issue, too. Bob Ulfers, an SIL translator in Cameroon who has worked with the organization for more than 25 years, learned of the debate by email last year while living in what he terms "the bush," surrounded by baboons. "I thought SIL would be like, 'No, no, no ... we're going to investigate these things,' instead of, 'Yeah, we do this,'" he told me. He found it "shocking."

As a translator, he understands contextualizing translations for the receiving culture. In the Karang culture where he works, for example, he said that the leper's comment to Jesus in the gospels, "If you are willing," is an insulting phrase, like a taunt, so the team translated instead, "If it is within your heart." But translations altering the divine familial terms are "conforming Christ to the culture," he said. Cameroon is not a Muslim-majority country-about 20 percent of the population is Muslim-so "Son of God" is not such a big issue there. And the Cameroon branch has not altered the familial terms, according to the branch director there.

"It is very tricky," said Dan MacDougall, professor of biblical studies at Covenant College. The original Greek in the Bible for "son" is huois, "the normal word for a child, but clearly Jesus' sonship is different," MacDougall said. "The word son is not a word like propitiation. ... It is a very transferrable concept because of our basic nature as humans." MacDougall couldn't address Wycliffe's translations in particular, but for contexts where "son" is misunderstood, he said, "I would do it by explanation, but not by changing it. Beloved-that is closer, but it still isn't the familial sense."

The familial terms express the close, permanent relationship between God and Jesus, he said, but they have more meaning that "beloved" doesn't capture. In the Bible, for example, Jesus the Son obeys God the Father-never the other way around: "A certain amount of the content of Christology is lost."

In June, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met for its annual General Assembly, and the body considered whether to pass an overture declaring that translations using the alternate renderings for divine familial terms were "unfaithful to God's revealed Word."

The overture, without mentioning any organizations, encouraged congregations to examine whether they were supporting such translations and potentially withdraw support. Before the vote on the overture, Wycliffe's President Bob Creson submitted an analysis of "key claims" of the overture to the PCA. The paper, though not formally admitted into the assembly's minutes, was printed and circulated. The document doesn't endorse or oppose the overture, but calls into question many of its assertions, like that translations had replaced "Son" with "Messiah." The document also defends "God's Uniquely Intimate Beloved Chosen One" as a plausible alternate rendering of "Son," saying the title expresses "the deep relationship between God and the Lord Jesus Christ."

Despite Wycliffe's contentions with some of the overture's claims, the overture passed in the assembly. Hersman told me later that Wycliffe agrees with "virtually everything" in the overture, except the old sticking point: "We would say if the literal translation conveys wrong meaning, then we're not being faithful to what God intended for those people to hear and understand when they read the Scriptures." In a statement, Wycliffe said, "Based on our original reading of Overture 9, we were concerned that the PCA did not understand the depth of our commitment to effectively translating the Father-Son relationship. ... Our response was not intended in any way to lobby against Overture 9."

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